The American Way of Privacy

My sister Jan — student of history, Navy vet and a Wise One — sent me an email a couple days ago that I thought would make a good guest post. She said yes to that suggestion and here it is…

Is the new born-in-connectivity generation going to re-define privacy?   They may try — from the comfort of their parents’ homes or the cocoon of youth — but first they have to understand what constitutes privacy.  They are going to learn, albeit the hard way, that what you make available is no longer private and therefore you cannot expect it to be protected by the norms of privacy.  The norms of privacy, however, aren’t universally understood.

America is one of the few — perhaps the only if we’re talking large scale — modern countries that was created though one people’s individual exploration and individual settlement into an ever-moving frontier.  After initial sputtering wealth-seeking attempts, the true settlement along the coast line of north America was primarily under private sponsorship rather than military incursion.   It was “relatively” benign colonization in that the goal was not to annihilate, enslave or ‘save’ the indigenous people through religious conversion or education.  The arriving colonists primarily sought freedom to work and worship and the opportunity to better their lives and raise their social standing.  The principal asset needed to obtain those goals was land, which was seen as limitless and free for the taking provided the native population withdrew beyond the frontier and one had the strength and determination to tame the land as needed.

The leading edge of this frontier movement started with those who built the original settlements in the early 17th century and continued to move out in the lower 48 until the mid-20th century and in very remote areas continues still.  The “frontier” society was composed of people who took the initiative and individually ventured into new areas where there was little law, oversight or judgement.  Although they brought morals and manners of every social strata, they also had to rely on each other and build some form of community where ever they settled in order to survive and thrive.  But in the frontier, in the place of established laws, there were protocols — unwritten codes of correct conduct — born of common consent and enforced by common acceptance  that enabled the community to function, grow and improve.  These protocols became the societal norm for most of the expansion into the US as it is today.

In the rest of the world connected by the major trade routes during this same period, societies grew and countries were formed primarily from the top down by gathering like together, or by force, and they were ruled through laws and protocols that came into being to enable financial investors, religions or conquerors to subjugate and /or extort populations.

But America came into existence and continued to expand as one contiguous country because the key unifying principle was individual liberty, and our legal and societal norms developed to support that principle.  This is what made America so singular as a nation in it’s early days. This is at the heart of what some call exceptionalism today.  Exceptional may be an egotistical term for it — as Putin just called it and as the push-backers deny — if one interprets exceptional as being “above average,” or “extraordinary” or any other superlative.  But America is exceptional if one uses the term in the context of “deviation from the norm.”

Now overlay this frontier concept onto the development of the Internet and our other networking systems.  How were they developed?  Was it by governments pushing out into or conquering a new frontier with laws and protocols in hand or was it by individuals determining the most effective protocols that would help them solidify what they had achieved and enable them to push the frontier borders out further, wider and deeper?

A unique concept of individual privacy was part of America’s frontier society;  it wasn’t a place of one’s past but rather a place of new starts, of re-creation, a place where a person made themselves anew, a place where it didn’t matter where or what you came from but rather where you were going and what you would do.  Therefore individual privacy became an expectation rather than an exception in the country that frontier society created.

However, that ingrained individualism is not the norm in the rest of the world, a world that technology has rapidly connected.  As of today, the concept of individual privacy is not universally understood, now that online, networked and connected  technology is at a confluence of cultures.  Because of the universality of the usage of connective technology, privacy is going to need a universally accepted definition.  And at the heart of privacy is the idea of identity:  is it vested in the individual or the collective?


  1. Chuck Erickson’s avatar

    Great Article!

  2. Ian Falconer’s avatar

    While I completely agree that concepts of privacy and identity are intimately entwined, indivisible even, I’m not convinced that individual privacy is not universally understood by what we confusingly term private individuals.
    There are certainly organisations that don’t understand personal boundaries but one of the defining features of human consciousness is the built-in sense of being an individual and having an internal, private, thought process. I don’t believe that even the most die-hard Maoist ever thought that a full, national-scale mind-meld was possible (or desirable).
    So rather than an absolute vesting of privacy in the body or in the community there is a contextual and porous boundary that we negotiate on an ad hoc basis. We have an innate situational awareness when it comes to knowing where our own sense of privacy stops, but it changes with who we are speaking to, where and about what.
    I wouldn’t discuss my sex life with my mother in the supermarket for example, but I might with my best mate over a beer in a pub. The relationships are analogous, the location is equally public but the context is totally different.
    The problem that we have online is that many of the social cues that our physical selves are aware of, without even thinking about them, are removed by mediated and especially text-based interaction. Couple that with the dominant online communicators by volume and by design input being relatively inexperienced at many of the basics of social interactions and we get the privacy mashup we have now, with online privacy being digital in a world where analogue is what we evolved to understand. To me privacy is certainly not monochrome. Its not even the Dulux colour palette. Its more like Roland Barthes’ rainbow.
    But its not even that simple because privacy is negotiated between participants not arbitrarily set by one. My best mate might not want the nitty gritty today, he just wants to talk football and enjoy a light conversation or even zero conversation and a game of pool. I’m not going to piss him off just to massage my own ego, the friendship is worth more than that.
    I might be perfectly happy sending a postcard with personal information on it but my Gran might be embarrassed by my openness and dislike receiving it. No-one wants to embarrass their Gran, at least not in my society. It might be the height of humour in other cultures or in other times, who knows.
    The point is that in reducing a complex social norm like privacy to a binary setting we ignore the intimate sense of self and how that informs virtually all our social interactions. National norms are great places to start to think about legislation or systemic design, but at a functional level when we innovators design or influence other designers and engineers, sometimes we might need to be a bit more nuanced and maybe even just back up a few decades to inform the next iteration of the code.
    Compulsary Downton Abbey for all coders maybe or a cohort of application testers with etiquette qualifications 😉
    Could you have privacy settings according to local social norms the same as we have language and keyboard settings for local hardware ?
    Would it foster greater or lesser understanding across national boundaries if I could, for example, set may language to UK English and my privacy to French ?

  3. kurt’s avatar

    this article is well written,
    I have a few disagreements though

    the notion of liberty as a philosophy vs the practical application of liberty are distinct. with globalization, America’s liberty concepts are both practically propagated and neutralized.

    Native American’s would probably disagree with the notion that liberty not land and wealth seeking drove American expansion. The limitless lands were ‘jointly’ owned by native Americans’ but that collided with economics and the notion of private property that European colonists and investors brought with them and the native American world view was effectively neutralized.

    Now a inflection of liberty, massive financial infusion and globalization, fueled by connectivity, is bringing back the old guard of European wealth accumulation, and the ‘ruled through laws and protocols that came into being to enable financial investors, religions or conquerors to subjugate and /or extort populations’. We worship our celebrities, our tech gurus, or financial wizards as they help to erode or at least district our citizens, from noticing that their essentials liberties are being chipped away by congress, gov agencies, corps, and big finance.

    Will the youth understand this ‘ingrained’ concept soon enough to bring it to practical effect, or we all continue to live the shadow of our former liberty and it’s legacy.

  4. Maschi’s avatar

    This is an interesting article.
    So, in the USA, the young generation is redefining privacy by using Facebook and the likes and thus not caring about privacy (for now), whereas in other countries it is a collective government-driven issue?

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